Cocoa, Cacao and the Cocoanut

Steam ConfectionPan

The origin of the word ‘cocoa’ in the English language is frequently a point of discussion. In the last two years ‘cacao’ has become much more commonly used and has been extolled by health bloggers and Sunday supplements as being a completely different and generally superior product to cocoa! Well…., neatly side-stepping that particularly pot of marketing treacle, i’ll show that that the confusion between cocoa and cacao existed as early as the 19th century and probably much earlier.

It’s worth mentioning that in French and Spanish there is no cocoa, it’s cacao, and in Portugese ‘cacau’ . So the confusion and distinction doesn’t exist in those languages.

Last year Diana was one of the four time travelling confectioners on BBC Television’s The Sweet Makers. Food Historian Dr Annie Gray explored many wonderful historical recipes for the team to recreate and in doing so introduced Diana to Skuse’s complete confectioner, first published in 1894.

This fabulous book gives a practical guide to the manufacture of fondants, creams, chocolates, liqueurs.. the list goes on. It’s a fascinating historical vignette into the confectioners art and is still available as a reprint today.

One of the most interesting sections to us is the Chocolate Making chapter, which as Skuse says is impossible to distinguish from the legitimate business of the confectioner.

Skuse's confectioner practical guide

Skuse elicits the advice of a friend in his chocolate making chapter and clearly finds himself on unfamiliar ground. Interestingly he acknowledges that many of the larger confectioners have special departments where nibs are received and the cocoas and chocolates turned out in every variety.

Skuse describes ….

The fruit of the Theobroma Cacao gives not only a pleasant flavour, but is nutritious in the highest degree

Clear here, possibly with the help of his expert friend, Skuse uses the full name for the cacao tree – Theobroma Cacao.

He later refers to cocoa and cocoa nibs, so clearly both terms were known and used.

Skuse on Chocolate Making
Skuse on Chocolate making continued

It’s interesting to hear Skuse talk of the use of a heated mortar and heavy iron pestle, and then being ground smooth on heated granite slabs with a roller. As Skuse says…

This process was slow, dirty and tedious.

I love the turn of phrase…

The employment of powerful and expensive mechanical contrivances

There are many recipes in Skuse’s book that use coconut or ‘cocoanut’ as it was then spelled as an ingredient. There is even a ‘cocoanut’ machine used to cut the coconuts into thin slices.

Given the common use of ‘cocoanut’ as a confectioners ingredient at the time, it’s highly likely that the English language use of ‘cocoa’ in place of cacao resulted as a mis-spelling due to confusion between ‘cacao beans’ and the ‘cocoanuts’ that would most likely have been, packed, shipped and traded in similar locations. 

Brown Cocoanut Confectionery
cocoanut toffee

Skuse’s Complete confectioner gives a fascinating insight into the art of the confectioner in the Victorian era. It also shows that many of our modern movements – Bean to Bar for example, are really history repeating itself. And the difference between cacao and cocoa? Well historically there is none!

There is very little that is completely new in the world of chocolate and confectionery, however perhaps we should leave the last word to Skuse…

It is here the clever man can show his talents, and, if he posseses any inventive genius, there is ample scope to show it. To be original here, is to be great – a new mould, a new combination, or a process that has merit, catches on at once.